A24 has a reputation of making the weirdest “mainstream” horror movies out there these days. The Humans might be the weirdest one yet. And that’s because it’s not even a horror movie. Based on his own stage play, writer-director Stephen Karam has crafted something incisive. Something wholly relatable. Something that is perhaps only scary because of how relatable it is.
Couple Richard (Steven Yeun) and Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) have just moved into a new apartment in Chinatown in New York City, and have decided to host Brigid’s family for Thanksgiving. In this chamber piece, we’re limited to six characters: Richard and Brigid, Brigid’s father Erik (Richard Jenkins), her mother Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), her sister Aimee (Amy Schumer), and her grandmother Momo (June Squibb). As you could expect from a family that doesn’t see each other often, there’s genuine love, but also a thick undercurrent of palpable tension. They care for each other, but as soon as someone leaves the room to use the restroom, they’re being talked about behind their back. Sometimes, the insults or hurtful words are said straight to each other’s faces.
The first thing that jumps out is the way this family feels authentic. They aren’t just actors reciting lines — they are these people who have had lifetimes of history together. It probably comes as a result of Karam’s time spent with these characters — the play debuted on Broadway in 2016 — but everything feels sincere and long-lasting. It makes the hurtful words that much more cutting, the behind-the-back insults that much more heartbreaking, and the real moments of love that much more endearing and heartwarming.
You never feel like you’re a fly on the wall in this film. Karam and cinematographer Lol Crawley place the camera in very subjective positions, whether it’s prolonged, slow zooms on one character, slowly circling the dinner table, or shooting the subject through broken glass or the cut glass door handle. This is the way to adapt a stage play to the screen. Each shot is intentional and evocative, even if you don’t know why or of what. You’ll feel as though you are in sure hands all the way through.
Karam’s screenplay is also to be admired. Not only does the dialogue seem naturalistic, but it feels purposeful as well. The way people across generations talk to each other is a subtle, yet important part of the dynamic of the film. The parents insist they aren’t pushing religion on their daughters, yet they decry therapists and give a statue of the virgin Mary as a gift. The film isn’t explicitly pro- or anti-religion; it just presents this family the way that they are.
The naturalism of the setting and the dialogue completely drives everything that is said or that happens. There are awkward pauses, moments of characters trying to alleviate tension, and though they’re few and far between, there are moments of levity as a break from the tension and awkwardness. It evokes the feeling of getting together for any holiday with your family. Sometimes it can feel like you’re all on the edge of a knife or that the clock is ticking towards an explosion. And that can all come as a result of seemingly mundane conversation.
Though it’s presented naturally in its dialogue, this still has an ominous and haunting tone. While Crawley finds unique places to put the camera, he also uses many horror conventions. And Karam utilizes jump scares, sound, and an eerie atmosphere to create something completely original. But alas, there are no actual monsters, ghosts, or ghouls. It’s just the old lady in the apartment above who is somehow noisy despite needing a walker. Nevertheless, you’ll be checking corners and wanting the lights on after the credits roll.
But just like any good horror movie, The Humans brings meaning to its madness. Unlike another iconic A24 horror flick, Hereditary, though, The Humans has a positive and uplifting ending. It’ll make you want to give your family a hug, no matter where you are in your relationship with them. Because at the end of the day, we’re all broken people in one way or another. But we have family and those we love around us for a reason, and that’s so we can cherish them and be there for them at the drop of a hat, no matter the circumstance. The final shot will stay with me for a long time, if only because it packs one of the most simple, yet poignant emotional punches I’ve experienced all year.